Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF!

Or how you can lose by winning…

Science fiction is in a slow sales decline (or not so slow, depending on which bookseller you talk to), and now accounts for a fraction of its former market. Meanwhile, fantasy remains a sales juggernaut, with what Publishers Weekly described at its last roundtable close-up (admittedly nearly three years ago now) as a ‘huge’ audience for immersive epics.

Which is strange when you consider that the quality of SF is arguably at an all-time high, a new golden age of speculative fiction. I can name several authors whose books will undoubtedly be read in decades to come, and I’m sure you can name many more. Fantasy – and I’m stating this as charitably as I can – has not produced so many quality works. One or two maybe. There have been a lot of good books, entertaining books, comforting books, ones that please their readers, but classics? Not so much. (I’m a fantasy author – I can say this.)

There’s been some debate about why SF is failing to resonate with the wider public in the same way that it used to do. Part of the reason is that we live in a science fiction age. The wonders that were on the page are now all around us. But to follow that argument to its conclusion would suggest that SF sales should be increasing rapidly as it becomes the fiction of the mainstream, true 21st century literature that shines a light on the way we live our lives today. Instead it’s following the trajectory of the western.

If we look to psychology we may find some answers. We are creatures that are held in stasis by opposing forces: our nature demands a balance. Right brain/left brain, masculine/feminine, intuitive/logical. Plato defined two ways of seeing the world – ‘logos’, from which we get ‘logic’, looking out at the world, scientific in common usage, and ‘mythos’ from which we get ‘mythic’, which mapped our inner selves and was just as vital for defining the way the world works.

Long memories or a little research will show how irrational we were back in the sixties and into the seventies. Belief in the occult was much more mainstream than it is now, with serious people discussing it in a serious way. You won’t find that today. I know some of you American readers will beg to differ, as you face a rising tide of irrational religiosity infecting mainstream life, but those pressures are coming from the outside into the heart of society, and are generally resisted by the opinion-formers and the establishment which shapes the consensus-reality of our society.

This was very clear in Richard Dawkins’ recent TV series where he charged out to attack what he saw as a tidal wave of irrationality from creationists, new agers and charlatans threatening to swamp science. In reality, he came across as a complete bully, using his intellect to smash down people who couldn’t vocalize their beliefs, or even really comprehend why they felt the way they did. It’s a flaw that’s just as clear in his best-selling book, ‘The God Delusion’.

The fact is, his side is winning. Generally, society is much more rational than it ever was.

I’m talking here about subtleties – about the mood of society, the ‘feel’ of it. You can probably find a million examples of perceived irrationality, from the high sales of ‘mind, body, spirit’ books to millionaire astrologers. But those things are accepted, often wryly, often hopefully, but very rarely at the heart of a world-view. Commentators in the media who shape opinion are united in their acceptance of the scientific paradigm. You don’t even find UK tabloid newspapers covering occultist or fringe subjects to the same degree they did in the sixties and seventies. As someone with lots of journalist friends, I know this is because even the tabloid people consider these things beyond what their readers would take seriously.

Dawkins knows this, I’m sure, but he’s on a crusade to stamp out irrationality wherever he might find it. He has stated that any irrationality is a threat, even if it’s a lightly held belief or a half-hearted curiosity about things he believes could never, ever be true.

And he’s wrong. Utterly. We need our mythos. We need our irrationality. We are built to need it. Cultures before ours managed to integrate both into the same world-view quite easily; it’s not an either/or situation. If you’re interested in magic, it doesn’t mean you think Einstein is a charlatan. (On the fringes, some may, but we’re talking about ‘real’ people here). The more people are unable to find irrationality in the culture around them, the more they will be driven to seek it out through their imagination.

In other words, every time Richard Dawkins kicks a quivering new ager, a hard-pressed science fiction writer loses another sale.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, society needs fantasy. It doesn’t really need SF.